TThe Mysticism Group of the

American Academy of Religion

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For the AAR Annual Meeting

in Chicago, Illinois, USA

November 1-3, 2008:

Click below to dowload pdf copies of the papers, as they become available.

*Time and room assignments are subject to change. Please consult final time and room assignments available in the onsite Annual Meeting Program At-A-Glance.*

Mysticism Group
Saturday - 1:00 pm-3:30 pm
CHT-Continental C

June McDaniel, College of Charleston, Presiding

Theme: The Stages of Mystical Development

The four papers in this session will examine how a variety of mystics and scholars of mysticism have understood the progress of spiritual development. The papers will explore benchmarks and roadmaps of mystical transformation. They include mystical journeys in patristic and medieval Christianity, and understandings of mystical development in Gaudiya Vaishnava and Western philosophy.

Katherine Rousseau, University of Colorado, Denver
Bodies and Maps: The Sensory Journey in the Apocalypse of Paul

Abstract: The Apocalypse of Paul, written in the fourth century CE, puts phenomena on display as the seer moves through the structured, museum-like space of the apocalyptic landscape. During his journey, the seer’s sensory experiences are manifest and integral to the revelation, through sight and sound, the promise of taste and smell, the observation of temperature extremes, the travel through contrasting geographic terrains. The Apocalypse of Paul is a mystical revelation experienced by an individual, or, in DeConick's words, a 'verbal map' that evokes for the reader a relationship with the divine. This function of the text operates simultaneously with hortatory narrative, providing both inward mystical and outward geographic-didactic maps of the apocalyptic journey. The centrality of the senses and body acts as a lens for viewing the otherworldly tour and qualifies, though does not reject, divisions between this-worldly and otherworldly – the corporeal and the spiritual.

John Reardon, Fordham University
Do Different Mystical Experiences Interrelate as Developmental Stages? Revisiting R. C. Zaehner's Theory of Mysticism

Abstract: The name of R.C. Zaehner, Spalding Chair of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford University from 1952-1974, has largely been absent from the conversation about mysticism in recent decades. This omission is unfortunate, for Zaehner has much to offer. On the phenomenological level, he makes a persuasive case for the plurality of mystical experiences, dividing them into nature mysticism, the mysticism of isolation, and theistic love mysticism. On the other hand, the degree to which Zaehner makes a convincing case when he argues that these experiences relate to each other as developmental stages culminating in an I-Thou union with God is likely to depend on one's theological perspective.

Ann M. Caron, St. Joseph College
Christian Medieval Women Mystics: Spiritual Senses and Stages of Mystical Development

Abstract: In the history of Christian mysticism one of the most important branches of discourse about inner transformation has been the language of the spiritual senses. This paper will proceed in two sections: a brief introduction in which I will highlight the foundational work of Origen and Bernard of Clairvaux. The second section focuses on selections from the Liber specialis gratiae (The Book of Special Grace) attributed to Mechtild of Hackeborn and The Flowing Light of the Godhead of the beguine Mechthild of Magdeburg. Attention will be directed to the journey toward union with God and the uses sensory language of sight and hearing, the language of taste, touch and smell to articulate the immediacy of union with God.

Travis Chilcott, University of California, Santa Barbara
Religious Practice, Doctrines, and the Production of Mystical States

Abstract: This paper examines the ways in which Gaudiya Vaishnava doctrines and practices work to induce mystical experiences by systematically initiating and effecting a restructuring of the practitioner’s psyche. We will use the 17th Madhurya Kadambini of Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakur as a reference point from which to frame and highlight the core doctrine and practices under consideration. Psychologically, we will examine the way Gaudiya doctrines and practices alter the conscious and non-conscious mental and emotional processes that inform and shape a person’s intra-psychic structures, resulting in their transformation and setting the stage for the experience of states of consciousness deemed mystical. The usefulness of this method extends beyond its application to the specific practices of medieval Gaudiya Vaishnavism and provides a model for interpreting and understanding how other forms of doctrines and practices associated with the generation of “mystical experiences” may induce such states.

Business Meeting:
Laura Weed, College of Saint Rose


Western Esotericism Group and Mysticism Group
Sunday - 3:00 pm-4:30 pm

Wouter Hanegraaff, University of Amsterdam, Presiding

Theme: Visualization in Mystical and Esoteric Practice

This panel investigates the visual dimensions of mystical and esoteric practices from three very different perspectives. The first paper draws on the work of William James to assess the validity and value of visionary mystical insights obtained through the use of entheogens in comparison to more well known, non-entheogenic mystical paths. The second and third papers deal with visualization techniques in Pure Land Buddhism and the Jewish Kabbalah respectively. This panel analyzes the role of visualization in the induction and elaboration of mystical states.

G. William Barnard, Southern Methodist University
Entheogenic Mysticism: A Jamesian Assessment

Abstract: Entheogenic Mysticism: A Jamesian Assessment This paper draws upon the work of the American philosopher and psychologist, William James, as a way to begin the difficult task of assessing the validity and/or value of the visionary/mystical insights that are obtained via the ingestion of entheogens (e.g., consciousness altering substances such as peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, or ayahuasca). By exploring James’s alternative to the typical understanding that our states of consciousness are “produced” by the neuro-chemical activity of the brain, and by applying James’s three-fold proto-pragmatic criteria of “immediate luminosity,” “philosophical reasonableness,” and “moral helpfulness” to the Santo Daime tradition (a Brazilian syncretistic new religious movement that centers around the ritual ingestion of ayahuasca), this paper attempts to uncover whether entheogenic mysticism is as valid and spiritually transformative as the more well-known non-entheogenic mystical paths (e.g., Christian mysticism, Sufism, as well as Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist mysticism).

June Leavitt, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel
Speech, Image, and Ecstasy: Divine Enlightenment in the Brotherhood of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai

Abstract: It can be implied from the Zohar, the preeminent cabalistic text, that the mystical rapture of the Shimon Bar Yochai brotherhood was enabled by social interaction and excited by human speech. For the Zohar mystics, who believed that God created the world through words and human beings in his image even a chance meeting on the road between the brotherhood and a stranger(Zohar II 13a-13b) is pushed into a climax of Divine illumination. Through a dialogue laden with Jewish theological images which suggest a technique of collectively visualizing the Divine, the Brotherhood exploits the full theurgic potential of human enocunter and verbal exchange. Journeying together throughout the hills of the Galilee in an undending flow of discourse the brotherhood of Shimon bar Yochai saw every moment as a speech event that could bring on rapture through an activation of imagination and intellect.

John M. Thompson, Christopher Newport University
Forcing the Buddha to Show Himself: Early Pure Land “Mystical” Visualization

Abstract: The Pratyupanna Sutra (Panzhou sanmei jing), an immensely influential text in China, centers on a visualization technique known as the pratyupanna samadhi in which, through intense concentration over seven days and nights, a practitioner will attain a vision of Amitabha Buddha. Such visions, often understood to guarantee rebirth in Amitabha’s “Pure Land,” raise major questions for students of religious experience and mysticism. Among these are questions concerning the relation of ascesis to religious experiences, the similarities (and differences) between the “numinous” and the “mystical,” the appropriateness of theoretical models of mystical experience proposed by W. T. Stace, R. C. Zaehner, Steven Katz and Robert Forman. Certainly some scholars may not consider the practice of pratyupanna samadhi to be truly “mystical,” yet we cannot deny such visions are powerful and deeply compelling. Like all extraordinary experiences, they challenge our conventional views of reality and the human situation.

Mysticism Group and Eastern Orthodox Studies Group
Monday - 1:00 pm-3:30 pm
CHT-Lake Michigan

Thomas Cattoi, Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley, Presiding

Theme: Eastern Orthodoxy and the Spiritual Senses

This co-sponsored session of the Mysticism Group and the Eastern Orthodox Studies Group will examine ways that the spiritual practices of Eastern Orthodoxy have been understood and developed, as well as how sensory and imagistic practices that originated within Eastern Orthodoxy have spread to Western Christian mystical practices.

Sarah Coakley, Harvard University
Gregory of Nyssa on the Spiritual Senses: A Reconsideration

Abstract: This paper proposes a reconsideration of the ‘spiritual senses’ theme in Gregory of Nyssa, at two levels. First, the modern context of Daniélou’s rediscovery is briefly explored and analysed. It is shown that Daniélou was strongly influenced in his retrieval both by a Jesuit inheritance of spiritual direction reaching back to the 18th century, and by the motivations of the emerging nouvelle théologie in the mid-20th century. This led to a selective and misleading understanding of Nyssen, however, and a failure to acknowledge the crucial differences between Gregory’s and Origen’s reading of the theme. Secondly, the distinctive features of Nyssen’s own construal of the ‘spiritual senses’ is then explored anew, focusing particularly on de anima et resurrectione. Whereas Origen tends to make the physical and ‘spiritual’ senses dualistically disjunct, Nyssen suggests a progressive transformation from the former to the latter.

Derek Michaud, Boston University
The Patristic Roots of John Smith’s 'True Way or Method of Attaining to Divine Knowledge'

Download PDF of this paper

Abstract: This paper provides a close reading and analysis of the reception and modification of Origen of Alexandria’s (185-252) doctrine of the spiritual senses in the early modern period in the “Discourse on the True Way or Method of Attaining to Divine Knowledge” by the Cambridge Platonist, John Smith (1618-1652). Smith accepted much of the doctrine as he found it in Origen but was too modern and too Protestant simply to take the doctrine on authority. Instead, Smith offers his own case for the spiritual senses, at once echoing Origen’s own words (as source) and mimicking his interpretive synthesis of (Middle/Neo-) Platonism and Scripture (as model), that Smith used as the basis for his distinctly modern theological method which influenced John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards. The paper thus presents a moment in the development of the spiritual senses that begins to bridge the scholarship on the Patristic, Medieval, and the Enlightenment periods.

Brandon Withrow, Samford University
A Connecticut Valley Yankee in a Cappadocian Court: Jonathan Edwards, Eastern Christianity, and the “Spiritual Sense”

Abstract: Starting in 1721, colonial theologian Jonathan Edwards grappled with a personal conversion that contradicted expectations bequeathed by his Western Puritan forefathers. Rather than a conversion experience driven by fear and trembling, Edwards discovered within himself a “spiritual sense” that unveiled the beauty and mystery of the divine nature. This “spiritual sense”—which he derives from his incarnational analogy and union with the divine—participates in trajectories set by the mystical thought of the Cappadocian fathers and those in orbit with their theology—such as Gregory Palamas and Didymus of Alexandria—and benefits particularly from the latter’s understanding of the incarnation. To date, brief studies have drawn parallels between Edwards and Eastern Christianity through Neoplatonism. While this is beneficial, a closer look at Edwards’s use of Didymus’s incarnational analogy will provide a clearer picture of the competing trajectories at play in New England spirituality.

Joseph Molleur, Cornell College
A Hindu Monk’s Appropriation of Eastern Orthodoxy’s Jesus Prayer: The “Inner Senses” of Hearing and Seeing in Comparative Perspective

Abstract: One of the most influential monks of the (Hindu) Ramakrishna Order to have “come to the West” is Swami Prabhavananda, who led the Vedanta Society of Southern California from 1923 until his death in 1976. In three of his published commentaries (two on Hindu sacred texts and one on the New Testament’s Sermon on the Mount), Prabhavananda quotes extensively from The Way of a Pilgrim and the Pilgrim Continues His Way, Russian Orthodoxy’s classic text on the practice of the frequent (ideally, the unceasing) repetition of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” The aim of this paper is to analyze Prabhavananda’s appropriation of Eastern Orthodoxy’s Jesus Prayer tradition, with special attention to the issue of the “inner senses” of “spiritual hearing” and “spiritual seeing.” The paper concludes by examining the suitability of thinking about Eastern Orthodoxy’s Jesus Prayer as a “Christian mantra.”